Backfence, No More. And?

Anyone who’s been watching the “hyper-local” space (more than just hyper-local journalism) has been keenly aware of Backfence. They were probably the first Internet company to raise a significant amount of money and then try and build a business around hyper-local journalism. Many thought it would work, many thought it wouldn’t. The first time I heard of Backfence was in the fall of 2005 from a passerby at a networking event who spoke about it very fondly. He was from the DC area and thought that Citysquares should emulate what they were doing, otherwise he thought we ought to watch out! Well, here we are nearly 2 years later and Backfence has announced they are closing shop.

Despite a recent history of management problems it seems to me that their demise was really just the result of a lack of execution, or of executing on the wrong plan. I have an inside source at Backfence, and he spoke frankly with me about the lack of open-mindedness at Backfence, a total stubbornness. Quite frankly, I’m relieved that Backfence is out of the way because if their present model did work, I think we’d all have to stop and take a very long and hard at the local advertising marketplace. Now, we just got more validation that the local advertising marketplace is not so naive, something I believe strongly in.

Peter Krasilovsky states,

“Ultimately, Backfence’s real legacy may be that it was a laboratory that helped pave the way for newspapers to seriously pursue hyper-local solutions that, notably, are not centered around local news (which it turns out, is not always very compelling). In the past several months, a number of useful, imaginative and fun newspaper hyperlocal sites have sprung up. Check out what The Washington Post is doing.”

I totally agree. They cleared a path through some very thick brush, and at the end of the path was a cliff. A trailblazer they were not.

Pete Cashmore at Mashable says that Backfence’s failure makes citizen journalism a failure. Well that’s an awfully bold headline! He says,

“The hyped “citizen journalism” trend isn’t panning out too well: Backfence, a network of 13 local sites where users could post their news items, classifieds and photos, is shutting down.”

And goes on to say,

“[Backfence and sites like it] were too ambitious, and focused too heavily on “journalism” instead of tech. Notice how the most successful “user generated writing” sites are really just about getting your users to write and rank material that turns up in search engines: success story Topix is all about good SEO, not some Utopian vision of users becoming journalists.”

I partly agree with this. Pete is right about one thing, for sure – “users” and “journalism” don’t go well together. I couldn’t agree with that more. That notion, in and of itself, is flawed. It’s almost an oxymoron – “citizen journalism.” I think that term clearly demonstrates how respect for real journalism is at an all-time low – it’s gotta be. That’s sad to me.

But in my not-so-humble opinion, Backfence’s demise has about as much to do with “tech” as it does with Britney Spears shaving her head. The reality, the apparent reality anyway, is that the execution was done poorly. It’s debatable whether or not “citizen journalism” at a hyper-local level could ever work. My instincts tell me that it can, if it’s done right. It seems to me that the problems were really that management got tangled up in itself, and according to my source, it refused to consider other methods of scaling. Hyper-local journalism can definitely work, but not in the way Backfence was going about it. It’s an exciting opportunity. Rob Curley (the poster boy for hyper-local news) is not just an anomaly, Rob Curley is a success story. And the Washington Post (now Rob’s employer) as Peter K. points out, is really onto some exciting stuff.

Hyper-local journalism can work.

I’m interested in how this affects Mike Orren, my friend at Pegasus News. Mike’s company seems to have a different approach to hyper-local news, one that makes better sense in many ways. Mike?

Amended 2007-07-16: See this article for Potts’ explanations.

Hyper-Local Going Mainstream

I’m a loyal New York Times reader, both online but also their Sunday paper. It shows up on my doorstep every Sunday morning and I often look forward to sitting in the kitchen and reading the paper, while my wife makes our Sunday breakfast. Long after we’ve eaten I’m still sitting at the kitchen island sipping a mug of cooling coffee (freshly pressed) and reading the Times.

The NY Times had a notable little piece in their Sunday edition this weekend (12/31/06), titled Seeking to Cash In On the ‘Hyperlocal’. While Manly refers to “Hyperlocal” as all news things that are hyperlocal, I can’t help but smile knowing that the term is getting more mainstream attention. Lorne Manly refers to the Rob Curley breed of hyperlocal: news oriented hyperlocal content (whether user generated or editorial). This model of hyperlocal, as the article points out, is what Backfence is doing. Another example of this is what Mike Orren is doing at Pegasus News in Texas. All of these are hyperlocal news based sites. Rob Curley’s done a heck of job in some of his markets (notably, Naples and Bonita Daily News, and the Lawrence Journal before he went to the Washington Post), and in doing so helping to shape what has has become “hyperlocal.” I look forward to a fusion of hyperlocal journalism and local search in the coming months and years.

Local and Hyper-Local

Local is, of course relative. But as it pertains to the Internet, local can really only mean one thing – what’s close to me. OK, OK, “close to me” is also relative, but still, all things pertaining ‘local’ herein refer to local Internet search and resources. Boston.com could be considered in the ‘local space’ as could the other countless local newspapers. Craigslist could also be considered considered local. There are some fine lines that distinguish a local site, from a non local site, and I have to say that one of the most critical defining characteristics is the site’s audience. I think that’s probably the simplest way to put it.

The Kelsey Group is perhaps the foremost expert in ‘local’. In fact, Citysquares’ business plan and investor presentations are jam packed with goodie-stats from Kelsey. Ultimately, they’ve got their fingers directly on the aorta of all this local-ness.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Krasilovsky. As it turns out, Peter and I share a few contacts. Peter is sort of a guru of the local space (Today I referred to Peter as the ‘Peter Gammons’ of local). We had a very interesting dialogue about the players out there, who’s hurting, who’s doing well, and generally his take on Citysquares.com. His feedback was immensely valuable, but what struck me more was his generosity to donate his time to me. He was in no rush to get off the phone (even though my VOIP phone was acting up), and offered up his brain power anytime. Peter has a blog called The Local Onliner. He’s respected enough that The Kelsey Group pulls his blog feed into their site. (If that’s not a thumbs-up, I don’t know what is.) He doesn’t write about local startups often, if at all, but he just posted a little piece about Citysquares.com.

What strikes me about his brief assessment is his use of the term “hyper-local.” I definitely used the term on our call, and surely he saw it on Citysquares.com, but he didn’t put quotes around it. Maybe I’m reading into this too much, but this is a fairly contentious term, because hyper-local typically refers to news – news in your neighborhood, your ward, your precinct. News from your precinct is pretty darn local. Any more local and you’re hanging out at Bingo night with the local grapevine. But hyper-local is a term that Citysquares has embraced, not because it’s sticky, but because it’s what we are. Citysquares.com can be the embodiment of your precinct, your neighborhood, on the internet. LOCAL. HYPER-LOCAL.

One of the pioneers of hyper-local is Rob Curley, whose seemingly accidental fall into hyper-local was a very lucky fall indeed. There was a great article about Rob in Fast Company last month. The title of the article? “Hyper-Local Hero.” Nice huh?

Now I don’t know if Rob’s version of hyper-local is more authentic than Citysquares’ version, or the other way around, or if we’re both hyper-local in our distinct ways. But if Peter Krasilovsky can use the term “hyper local” and “Citysquares.com” in the sentence (without saying “Citysquares.com is NOT hyper local”) than I just received confirmation. It’s sort of like Peter Gammons saying that David Ortiz is a DH – it’s just not true until The Commissioner says so.

Look at Craigslist. There is a reality out there, that CL is hurting local papers. I don’t know what the facts and figures are, but if you’ve paid attention to the local newspaper space, something is killing ’em – that’s undeniable. Rob Curley seems to have a fix.

Know of any other hyper-local services out there in cyber-space?